I have a confession to make: Winter is my favorite time of year for photographic growth. Many photographers cringe at the thought of staying indoors for months, not shooting those beautiful golden hour sessions, but I actually love the shooting possibilities of the off season. It’s my time to practice creative photography. It’s when I really can let loose, experiment, and concentrate on reaching my personal goals, rather than playing it safe for clients. If this long winter has you feeling frozen like the icicles on your rear-view mirror, these four creative photography ideas will get you moving forward again.

4 Tips to move your creative photography forward in the slow season

1. Take self portraits.

I am a huge fan of self portraits. This is such a great way to practice creative photography when your only subject is you. In the winter months, when my kids aren’t home all day and my client sessions are fewer and farther between, I love trying new techniques to keep my creativity sharp. Before I begin a self-portrait session, I usually study one particular concept that I’d like to master. For instance, maybe I want to nail the difference between Rembrandt lighting and loop lighting. I read as much as I can on the topic and then set myself and my camera up near a good window and snap away. I also like to incorporate different compositional techniques and new editing ideas.

A self portrait using dramatic side lighting
A self portrait using dramatic side lighting.

2. Use artificial light.

As a natural light photographer, there are no scarier words than “artificial light.” However, here in Chicago, in the darkest winter months, the sun starts going down pretty much as soon as my kids get home from school. We really only have a handful of daylight hours each day. If I want to take pictures of our life as it happens, I have to get comfortable with something other than sunlight. I love stretching my creative photography muscles by finding new light sources.

This past winter, I bought an Ice Light 2 that I love playing around with in the evenings. Since it is such a small, concentrated light, it is easy to manipulate and see how it affects your subject and mood right away. What I love about it is that you can achieve dramatic lighting with heavy shadows, or even mimic or enhance daylight with minimal shadows. I’ve also used street lights, car headlights, candle light, lamps, flood lights, oven lights, and whatever else I can find that gives off interesting, dramatic light in the endless dark hours of winter.

Using different types of light really forces you to think outside the box and get out of the rut that we sometimes fall into when natural sunlight is abundant.

photo of boy in blue coat playing with car headlights illuminating subject
This photo was taken using car headlights to illuminate the boy.

3. Use manual focus lenses.

In the summer and fall, I don’t have a lot of time to experiment with new lenses and techniques. I tend to fall into the “play it safe” trap with clients. But in the winter, I can use my time to master new skills to apply in warmer months. One of my newest creative photography loves is vintage and manual focus lenses.

This winter, I’ve found a vintage Helios lens as well as an old, manual focus 50mm (both of which you can find super cheap on sites like eBay). These lenses are amazing for trying fun techniques like free lensing and manual focus. There is nothing like the beautiful, soft focus of a vintage lens, and the flare you can create is unbelievable. Using a manual focus lens also forces you to slow down and work purposely through your frame before pushing the shutter button. After coming off the busy season, it’s a great way to refocus (pun intended) and hone in on your creative side.

photo of two boys jumping in leaves, taken with manual focus lens
This was taken using a manual-focus lens.

4. Study color theory.

Color plays such a huge role in composition and creative photography, but is often overlooked in the rush to get the shot. For the most part, I tend to shoot my boys in a lifestyle/documentary style in the summer, when they’re running around and being kids. Because of this, I don’t tend to focus much on their choice of clothing. But my favorite photographs, and some of my strongest, often take into account color theory and how it affects the viewer and the mood of the image.

Winter is a great time to study the color wheel and learn how colors interact with each other in the frame. Do you want to create balance and harmony in your image? Try using a monochromatic color palette. Do you want your subject to pop out of the frame or maybe create tension? Try using complementary colors. Do you want a sense of energy, strength, or passion in your image? Use colors with a stronger visual weight, like red or yellow. There are so many different combinations of colors to use for different purposes. The more you study color theory, the more possibilities you’ll find with your own images.

Pro tip: I have often taken a photograph that I think would be so much stronger if only my kids had been dressed in a different color. One way to achieve this is through the magic of post processing. Sometimes using Photoshop to turn a blue jacket into a red one can make an image come to life!

color theory image of blue on blue boy and grandpa fishing
Here I've used blue on blue to create a tranquil mood.

There are so many possibilities for growth in your creative photography during the long winter months. It’s easy to lose motivation when the sun sets at 4:30 in the afternoon and you’re faced with hours of dark and cold. But using this time to focus on ideas and techniques that you otherwise wouldn’t have time for can really help to propel you forward and keep your creative juices flowing. Happy winter shooting!

What are YOUR go-to winter rut busters?

I’d love to hear your best tips for breaking out of the winter photography blues. Let me know in the comments!

All photos by Megan Arndt.